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Beauty brigade fiddles while London housing goes into meltdown

Paul Finch
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The latest document from the Scrutonistas repeats the fantasy that if we built Classical homes they would be granted speedy planning permissions, writes Paul Finch

I haven’t had time to digest all the essays in the latest document from the Scrutonistas, Building Beautiful: A collection of essays on the design, style and economics of the built environment, published by Policy Exchange. To be fair, there is plenty of food for thought as a result of its wide variety of contributors, some of whom avoid the marsh gas of Classical propaganda.

Terry Farrell, for example, argues for a revival of that neglected building type, the mansion block – a victim not so much of planning as regulations regarding light. These were a response to 19th-century conditions, but the regulations themselves have now become part of the problem.

The reality is that nobody wants big new construction anywhere near them, whatever the style

Much of the collection is a depressingly familiar repeat of the fantasy that, if only we were building beautiful Classical homes, people would be falling over themselves to grant speedy planning permissions and we would all live happily ever after. The reality is that nobody wants big new construction anywhere near them, whatever the style. Those concerned with green belt protection couldn’t care less about whether proposals have pediments. Housebuilders who don’t have a problem getting permissions – for example Persimmon – don’t have a preferred style (to put it mildly).

Roger Scruton has wisely acknowledged that he and his commission may be a ‘decoy’, used by government to disguise its lack of success in getting house-building going. In London, things seem to be getting worse, with worrying statistics released last week showing that private house-building in the capital is slowing down, with concomitant implications for ‘affordable’ provision. (This abuse of language continues. I saw such provision last week where the cheapest, ie small, unit cost £795,000.) 

Ask people with ideas how to build

Needless to say, Policy Exchange didn’t invite a single contractor or engineer to contribute to its little tome, no doubt concerned that folk who actually do stuff rather than yak about it might say the wrong thing. I commend engineering consultants WSP to them, because they have been thinking about mass housing provision in London which avoids green belt, instead looking at ‘free’ sites: space above rail and tube track and/or stations.

In November 2017 WSP strategic growth director Bill Price launched the firm’s Out of Thin Air study, which suggested that exploiting such sites could provide 250,000 homes. Rather than leaving it at that, in dogged engineer fashion WSP then developed 10 criteria – ranging from population density to proximity of listed buildings – in order to analyse and filter potential sites, comprising track and adjacent available land.

Mapping studies based on the criteria suggest the number of homes could be more – 280,000. This is important work which deserves support. The signs are that Network Rail and Transport for London will not be averse to pursuing this line of thinking. The sooner the better.  

Archigram – beauty 60s-style

Blow-hard housing minister Kit Malthouse, who cites a Classical courthouse in Alabama as an example of eternal beauty (I am not making this up), must be confused by aesthetic ideas elsewhere in Whitehall.

The AJ’s story of how the Archigram archive was nearly prevented from being exported because of its value to UK cultural history is a good example of the establishment’s cognitive dissonance with respect to aesthetics. On the one hand, modern ideas are completely hopeless and we need to get back to good old traditional values. On the other, the work of a group that polemicised in favour of completely new ways of thinking about architecture and cities is now thought so important that keeping its archive intact – even if it goes to a Hong Kong arts institution – obtains ministerial approval.

Establishment wakes up, shock! It has taken long enough.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Well put Paul, thank you. Homes are not about styles but about light, space and joy, and communities.
    My own double house in Notting Hill, build on 106m2 (!) of land and visited thus far by some 3010 people, in now on YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWCDTgjjUi8 (some years too late…). At planning - two letters of support, no objections, then two awards.

    In 2016, after I saw from the top of Trellick Tower that most of land in North Kensington was taken by train tracks and roads, I wrote to the mayor about building housing above train tracks. The issue is the cost and legalities. I suggested that it was up to the mayor/state to untangle the legal issues of air rights, and then to pay for and procure ‘new land’ in form of slabs/platforms above tracks. These then would be issued to social housing builders as new development land.

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